By Michael Burris:
I do not have a degree in sports psychology, but I am a head case. I am well aware of how the mind can make champions out of the unassuming and absolutely destroy the highly regarded. A trained mind can be far more powerful than any other athletic gift. In the realm of cycling, a strong mind is what sets winners apart from the rest of the peloton. You can’t win if aren’t willing to sacrifice and suffer more than anybody else. Obviously there are other factors, but none more decisive than the mind.
I am a competitive cyclist and a coach. I have learned through my own successes and failures, as well as through those of my clients, how to use the mind to achieve big goals. It is my intent with this article to share with you some mental strategies I have developed that will help you have your best season ever.
Part I: Nutrition
I began this article about 2 weeks into the New Year. Statistically, about 65% of you will renege on your New Year’s resolution to lose weight by the end of next week. And I ask, “Why?” Why is it so hard to change?
I see it year after year when I watch good riders get dropped on big climbs in important races. In many cases it is due to carrying the same extra 5-10 pounds year after year. Shedding the last 5-10 pounds is something I hear cyclists talk about constantly, but rarely do. Why? Because it’s hard.
Life is stressful for most of us. Food, and booze for that matter, is a comfort most everyone enjoys. We need our comforts, but why let it prevent us from experiencing a new level of success? Is there a way to have both? Yes, but not at the same time.
Developing an effective nutrition plan is not difficult; sticking to it is. Losing weight takes time and this is what kills it for most people. In order to stick to it, mental strategies must be employed over long periods of time. To do this you must set short-term goals and build in some relief. Here are my top 5 strategies for sticking to the plan:
- Count calories.
- Reduce your intake from Sunday to Friday (lunch) and then eat what you want from Friday evening through Sunday morning. Chances are you are doing longer workouts on the weekend anyway. This will also keep your metabolism revved up.
- To run a caloric deficit of 1000 calories per day (2 lbs. per week), burn 500-700 during an early morning or afternoon workout and another 300-500 by calorie restriction. (During times of heavy training, a 1000-calorie deficit is not recommended. Shoot for 300-500 calories per day.)
- Make sure you accurately measure calorie burn during a workout. It is usually much less than you think.
- Create a variety of meals and snacks that you can make during the week that will provide you with an accurate number of calories per day.
I try and eat 2000 calories each day from Monday to Friday. I go with 250 calories at breakfast, 250 during a mid-morning snack, 500 for lunch, 250 for mid-afternoon snack, 500 for dinner, and a 250 calorie bed time snack. I eat protein and fruit at breakfast, almonds or fruit for snacks, a salad with protein for lunch and usually protein and veggies for dinner. Eating this way is about managing hunger. I am never starving but I am hungry from time to time. Knowing I can eat what I want on Friday and Saturday helps tremendously in sticking with the plan during the week. Be careful with the booze. One beer or two 5 ounce glasses of wine are okay if you have to have it, but you need to factor the liquids into your daily caloric intake. You will realize quickly that you would rather have more food. Save it for the weekend. Make it a reward for keeping to the plan during the week.
Depending on your training level, you will need to adjust your calorie intake. When you are riding a lot, you need to eat. The best way to make sure you are getting the calories you need, but not overdo it, is to fuel properly before and after your ride. For rides longer than 2 hours (or 100 TSS points or more), eat about 300 calories before the ride and 500 -600 calories after by way of a recovery shake. Then stick to the nutrition strategies. Proper recovery and weight-loss are difficult to balance. That is why most coaches recommend losing the bulk of weight during the early season, before the intensity starts.
Part II: Training
Winter is hard on cyclists in the Northeast. In order to be ready for the season openers in April, many riders log serious stationary miles in cold, dark basements. Hour after hour on the trainer is a serious mental drain. It is a tough way to start any training plan. I suggest the less is more approach.
Don’t try to ride 15 hours a week on the trainer. Shoot for 3-4 cycling specific workouts plus some cross-training for volume to build or maintain fitness in the winter. The cycling specific workouts should be longer, “sub-threshold” workouts with a sprinkling of VO2 work once a week. Hit the gym to build some strength. Do some running, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing in place of endurance work on the trainer. Variety will protect you from mental burnout. Set up your workout space in the basement with inspiring quotations, a mirror, a t.v., and an iPod stereo. Listen to podcasts, watch cycling, your favorite t.v. series, or just blast the tunes. I started making playlists for certain workouts much like you find in the spinning studios. It really helps me stay mentally focused when doing longer workouts. Make sure you don’t just spin. Break up the time with intervals that vary cadence, intensity, or position (standing or sitting). Invite some riding buddies over if you have the space.
Whether you are inside or out, staying committed to a plan can be mentally tough. Having a plan to begin with is half the battle. At least with a plan, each day is scheduled. This prevents the, “I wonder what I should do today” routine from happening.
I find motivation to train is highest after a long layoff or rest period and during the beginning of the race season. For me February and March are the hardest months to stay motivated. By this time I’m sick of the basement and the weather is still crummy. The absolute best thing a rider can do during this time is to sign up for a training camp somewhere warm (or warmer). These can be expensive, but they do not have to be. Find a few riders, rent a van, and head south for a long weekend or week if you can afford the time. Go down to Virginia or the Carolinas for a nice block of endurance training. It will pay huge dividends both mentally and physically.
The other mental challenge of a good training plan is continuously putting in the hard efforts required to get faster. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “Anaerobic endurance intervals today. Sweet!” But, anyone who races knows that without this training, you will be watching the peloton roll away as you drift off the back. Here are 5 ways to keep the intensity up during the build and race periods of your schedule:
- Make sure your training zones are accurate. I know so many riders that overestimate their functional threshold power or functional threshold heart rate. This causes training to be much harder than it should be for a given workout. For example, if your estimated FTP is 290 watts and in reality it is 260 watts, what is supposed to be a VO2 workout now becomes an anaerobic endurance workout. In plain language, this means what should be hard is now excruciating and will produce much more physical and mental fatigue.
- Recover right. After hard workouts be sure to take in easily absorbed carbs with a little protein immediately. Continue to consume high quality food in the hour or two after the workout. Get good sleep during periods of high intensity training, stay hydrated, and lay off the booze. Get a massage form time to time if you can swing it. Good recovery is key to maintaining a mental edge.
- Stick to the plan. Don’t do extra “work” on days you should be going easy. If you go hard when you should be taking a rest, you will not be able to go hard when the training plan calls for it. In addition, if you do every worlds ride, TT, race, or group ride your region has to offer, you will undoubtedly destroy yourself mentally and physically.
- Plan your intensity strategically. You can use local rides to your advantage when your training plan calls for intensity. The intervals won’t be as controlled, but the training stress will be right. If you have a local “worlds” ride, practice “breaking away,” chasing breaks, taking “pulls,” or sprinting for town lines as a way to get the training stress you need. Local time trials are also great opportunities for high intensity workouts. Take your trainer to the course, do some work to warm up and then lay it down on the course. TTs are very motivating.
- Race. The Europeans have been doing it for years. 1000km of easy riding, then race. I love the simplicity of it. I do not think it is the best way to train, but there is no replacing racing as a way to build fitness. Riders will always put in bigger efforts in races then they will in training. There is no decision to make about how hard to go. You go as hard as you possibly can. There is such a thing as too much racing, but racing with great recovery will produce very good results. (Note: scheduling a race during the third week of a 3-week build is the most ideal time to do it.)
Part III: Racing
Many times in bike racing it is not the best that wins; it is the one who can suffer the most. There is nothing like suffering on the bike. Everyone has a pain threshold. Take 5 riders all with an FTP of 300 watts. If asked to climb a 3 mile hill, they will certainly not finish together. Each rider has a different pain threshold. The key to racing more effectively, is to improve your pain threshold. It is a mental battle. Here are a few tips to keep you in every race:
- Don’t waste energy. It is tempting to chase down breaks or to try and create them. Don’t do it if you don’t have to. The best riders I know (and the ones that win races) are hardly present during much of the race. They wait patiently for the opportune time and then it is ‘game over.’ This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get away, it just means be smart. Do not try and ride away from the peloton on a flat stretch of road, unless you can. This also means do not chase down 2 riders that are up the road. They will be caught anyway, unless of course they are powerhouses that you probably can’t bridge to anyway. Save your energy for when you really need it.
- Ride near the front and pay attention. Surges and breaks will sap your energy especially if you are near the back. Anticipating attacks will save you from putting in big efforts if there is a split in the field. Riding near the front will also help you stay in contact during a climb if this is not strength. You may drift to the back, but you will still be there.
- Relax. When going deep into the red zone, try and stay calm. Take deep breaths and relax your upper body. Make sure your legs are doing all the work.
- Make a selection. Pick a rider out of the group that you know you can hang with. Get on his wheel and stay there. The more you race with the same people the easier this gets.
- Practice. Do the work in training. Mimic the race intensities. Don’t just go hard. Go really hard when your training plan calls for it. The more experience you have with pain the more you can handle.
Remember, cycling is supposed to be a fun, healthy activity. For me, it is more fun when I am progressively getting lighter, stronger, and smarter on the bike. Knowing I have done the work, gives me that mental edge I need to push when I want to stop. I wish the same for you this season.
Michael Burris is a USA Cycling Certified Coach and part of the 1K2GO Sports Coaching Group, as well as the Director of the Burris Logistics – Fit Werx Masters Racing Team. For more information email Mike at [email protected]